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AL West 2020 preview: Houston Astros are still the favorites

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Offseason moves, 60-man player pool, and season outlook

2019 World Series Game 7 - Washington Nationals v. Houston Astros
Zack Greinke effectively replaces Gerrit Cole in the rotation
Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The 2020 MLB season is just two weeks away from finally starting, coronavirus pandemic willing. The offseason feels like it was years ago, so let’s remind ourselves of what the competition looks like.

The Oakland A’s will only face nine different teams in their abbreviated schedule, with two-thirds of their games coming against their four AL West rivals. We’ve already covered the Mariners, the Angels, and the Rangers, and last up are the Astros.

Houston Astros

2019 record: 107-55 (finished 1st in AL West, won AL pennant)

Quick season review: One win away from another championship! The Astros won a franchise-record 107 games, navigated through the playoffs, and reached the World Series for the second time in three years. They took a 3-2 Series lead over the Washington Nationals, but then the Nats captured the final two contests for a thrilling seven-game victory.

Houston is at a top level of contention where anything less than a title is a disappointment, but it was still a wildly successful season in which they posted the best record in the entire majors. Justin Verlander won the Cy Young and Gerrit Cole finished runner-up, Alex Bregman was a close runner-up for MVP and George Springer finished seventh, and Yordan Alvarez was the unanimous Rookie of the Year after a historic slugfest. Verlander, Bregman, Springer, and Michael Brantley all started the All-Star Game, and were joined by Cole and reliever Ryan Pressly as reserves. Even injuries to a few other key players couldn’t slow down the juggernaut.

On top of all that, they made a massive trade at the July deadline to acquire another ace in Zack Greinke. He pitched up to his normal high standards the rest of the year, and is still signed through the end of 2021.

However, the good feelings quickly faded over the winter due to multiple scandals. Before the World Series was even over, they fired assistant general manager Brandon Taubman after he taunted female reporters in the clubhouse. Then in November, news broke that the Astros had cheated during their championship 2017 season and also 2018 using an elaborate sign-stealing system, leading to the firings and 2020 MLB suspensions of GM Jeff Lunhow and manager A.J. Hinch plus other penalties — though not enough punishment to appease the public, which felt Houston got off light. The enduring image of the episode is the trash can that players banged on in the dugout to signal which pitch was coming.

Still a heavyweight but now disgraced, the Astros entered 2020 looking to continue their run of dominance. Here’s a quick look at their offseason moves from last winter.

Hello Goodbye
Free Agency
C Dustin Garneau (1/$0.7m)

Trades
RHP Austin Pruitt (from TBR)
Free Agency
RHP Gerrit Cole (to NYY)
RHP Will Harris (to WAS)
RHP Collin McHugh (to BOS)
LHP Wade Miley (to CIN)
RHP Hector Rondon (to ARZ)
RHP Aaron Sanchez
C Robinson Chirinos (to TEX)

Trades
OF Jake Marisnick (to NYM)

They also re-signed two of their own free agents, reliever Joe Smith and catcher Martin Maldonado, and they lost relief prospect Brandon Bailey in the Rule 5 draft only to have him returned in March.

Houston lost a key star in Cole, but really they already replaced him by getting Greinke last summer. They still have two Cy Young-caliber aces, and the loss of Miley is mitigated by the return of Lance McCullers, who missed 2019 to Tommy John surgery. Their bullpen took a beating, with three of their best relievers leaving, but they’re still loaded in that department too.

That the Astros could lose this many productive players and still be fine speaks to their impressive depth. They signed a new catcher to replace Chirinos, but otherwise pretty much drew from within to fill the vacancies that formed. And they still have more in the wings, as nearly every pitching prospect you’ve never heard of in the player pool below has amazing numbers in the minors.

Here’s the player pool, which stands at 56 players out of the 60 maximum. Players with asterisks** are the favorites to make the Opening Day 30-man roster, in the opinion of insider Brian McTaggart; there’s still one spot open, with only 29 marked for now (reliever Taylor is mentioned as another possible candidate). Players in --italics are not on the 40-man roster, which currently features 39 players (38 included here; LHP Kent Emanuel was left out due to an elbow injury).

Houston Astros 60-man pool
Pitchers Hitters
Starters

Justin Verlander (R)**
Zack Greinke (R)**
Lance McCullers (R)**
Jose Urquidy (R)**
Framber Valdez (L)**
Rogelio Armenteros (R)
Cristian Javier (R)
Cionel Perez (L)
Nivaldo Rodriguez (R)
--Brandon Bielak (R)
--Shawn Dubin (R)
--Luis Garcia (R)
--Forrest Whitley (R)



Relievers

Roberto Osuna (R)**
Bryan Abreu (R)**
Joe Biagini (R)**
Chris Devenski (R)**
Josh James (R)**
Brad Peacock (R)**
Ryan Pressly (R)**
Austin Pruitt (R)**
Joe Smith (R)**
Cy Sneed (R)**
Enoli Paredes (R)
Blake Taylor (L)
--Brandon Bailey (R)
--Brett Conine (R)
--Ralph Garza (R)
--Andre Scrubb (R)
--Jojanse Torres (R)
Catchers

Dustin Garneau (R)**
Martin Maldonado (R)**
Garrett Stubbs (L)
--Michael Papierski (S)
--Jamie Ritchie (R)
--Colton Shaver (R)


Infielders

Jose Altuve (R)**
Alex Bregman (R)**
Carlos Correa (R)**
Aledmys Diaz (R)**
Yuli Gurriel (R)**
Abraham Toro (S)**
Taylor Jones (R)
Jack Mayfield (R)
--Alex De Goti (R)
--Nick Tanielu (R)


Outfielders

Yordan Alvarez (L)**
Michael Brantley (L)**
Josh Reddick (L)**
George Springer (R)**
Myles Straw (R)**
Kyle Tucker (L)**
--Ronnie Dawson (L)
--Drew Ferguson (R)
--Chas McCormick (R)
--Jake Meyers (R)

It’s still an elite roster. The rotation has two aces, two more strong arms behind them, and a host of prospects battling for the fifth spot — McTaggart notes that Abreu, James, and Pruitt are also competing with Valdez for that final job. On top of that group, Whitley is a national Top 30 prospect who reached Triple-A last year. The bullpen is still nasty, with an All-Star closer and two All-Star setup men plus several more electric arms, though it doesn’t have a single lefty (unless Taylor and/or Valdez ends up there).

The lineup is even better. It has All-Stars at six positions, including one MVP (Altuve) and another runner-up (Bregman). The other three spots are Alvarez, Gurriel, and Reddick, each of whom is capable of at least 2+ WAR, and Alvarez may have been an All-Star last summer too if he’d debuted before June. If anything goes wrong, Diaz is an excellent backup in the infield, and Tucker is a national Top 20 prospect just waiting for his chance to step into the outfield.

They even got a boost from the pandemic shutdown. Verlander would have missed the beginning of the season after March groin surgery, but with the extra time off he’s now 100% back to health. A short season might not be the worst thing for them, either, as 37-year-old Verlander and 36-year-old Greinke won’t have to put in full workloads.

The Astros took some major hits last winter, but don’t be fooled — they’re still the best team in the division, with premium talent and depth in all areas of their roster. They’re probably still the best in the league, too, though it hurt that Cole went directly to their primary competition in New York. The A’s are ready to make a serious run at them, but Houston is still the favorite in the AL West in 2020.

The A’s will face the Astros for the first time from Aug. 7-9, at home in the Coliseum. That’s Game Nos. 14-16 of the season.