2024 Season Preview: Houston Astros

What Happened In 2023?

The 2023 Houston Astros were a truly perplexing baseball team.

Win-Loss Record: 90-72
American League West position: 1st

On the one hand, it is impossible to view last season as anything less than an immense opportunity missed to win back-to-back Championships and lift a third World Series title. The Astros rebounded from an 0-2 American League Championship Series (ALCS) deficit to head back to Houston 3-2 up, and only one home win away from a fifth World Series appearance in seven years, only to fail to turn up to their own party.

It all came to a juddering halt, being bludgeoned in Game 7 by a vengeful Texas Rangers outfit still smarting from the Astros snatching the American League West division title on the final day of the regular season. Their reward for winning was a World Series against a plucky Arizona D-Backs club, and the Rangers duly dispatched them in five games.

Oh, what could have been for the 2023 Astros… who claimed the infamy of becoming only the second team to ever lose all four home games of a postseason series. The other? The infamous 2019 Houston Astros, the greatest baseball team I have ever seen but yet who so painfully failed to dare to be great on the grandest stage of all.

On the other hand, however, the 2023 Astros were a Jekyll & Hyde unit who flirted in September with missing out on the playoffs altogether. Characterised by an inexplicable offensive impotence at Minute Maid Park and the increasingly neurotic lineup selections of legendary manager Dusty Baker, there were many times in 2023 that the Astros did not appear anything like the dominant force of 2022 who stormed to a deserved Championship.

On the road, the Astros were deadly, winning multiple series against the very best of the rest; at home, they just did not look like the same team. First-half injuries to iconic second baseman José Altuve and fearsome talismanic lefty hitter Yordan Álvarez certainly did not help either, as the team struggled to find any offensive consistency.

Bringing back Justin Verlander from his brief ill-fated spell with the New York Mets acted, just as it had originally in 2017, as the catalyst to breathe some life into the Astros. Overall though, it was a muddled and confusing year to assess. Who really were the 2023 Astros? To coin THAT phrase, “I guess we’ll never know…”.

Arrivals & Departures

Ahead of the 2024 season, the major new addition to the Astros is elite lefty closer Josh Hader. Signed to a huge 5-year $95m contract, bringing Hader back to the Astros after he previously left back in 2015 is a huge statement of intent from owner Jim Crane. In displacing the magnificent Ryan Pressly as the Astros’ closer, the back-end bullpen trio of those two, preceded by Bryan Abreu, will be nightmare fuel for the vast majority of teams facing the Astros in 2024.

The signing of right-handed reliever Dylan Coleman via trade with the Kansas City Royals is likely to reap far less reward, with a troubling Spring Training seeing the new man sent to Triple-A to begin the season.

Other additions include the free-agent signing of backup catcher Victor Caratini on a 2-year, $12m deal and a trade for first baseman Trey Cabbage from the Los Angeles Angels. Caratini looks to be a savvy signing to deputise from Yainer Díaz and will hopefully be a reliable option when called upon. Cabbage arrived with a reputation for his sky-high offensive ceiling but a propensity to strike out far too much. Hitting just .111 in Spring Training saw him also sent to Sugar Land to begin the year in Triple-A.

There were a number of notable departures from the Astros following the 2023 season. Veteran catcher Martín Maldonado finally ended his long and successful tenure with the club, with his decline-laden last year serving largely as a painful reminder not to hold on to a player for too long.

The club also bade farewell to the wonderful Michael Brantley, with age and injury calling time on the career of an exquisite professional hitter and human being.

Additionally, the Astros opted – surprisingly – to let the emotional and talented reliever Héctor Neris walk, along with bullpen compadres Phil Maton and Ryne Stanek, leaving a huge middle relief hole to fill in 2024.

Areas Of Weakness

Pitching. It cannot be overstated how fragile the Astros’ pitching is heading into the 2024 season. In addition to the middle relief chasm left by the departures of Neris/Maton/Stanek, though there are many potentially excellent starting pitchers at the club, EVERY single one of them has legitimate question marks hanging over them:

Verlander – another year older; Framber Valdez – 2023 mental struggles on the mound; Cristian Javier – disintegration of form in 2023; Hunter Brown – ruined by arm fatigue as his rookie year wore on; J.P. France – can he repeat his unexpected excellence in his sophomore season; José Urquidy – loss of form, injury worries; Lance McCullers Jr – still injured until at least July; Luis Garcia – ditto.

If everyone is healthy and pitches at their best, it is a fantastic and talent-laden ensemble. They will not be that way in perpetuity; it risks being a house of cards.

One To Watch

His first name begins with ‘Y’ and his surname ends with ‘Z’. No, not him – I am talking about Yainer Díaz! An extremely impressive first full season in the majors saw him hit 23 home runs at an OPS of .846 and finish 5th in AL Rookie of the Year voting. Had Dusty Baker played him more over Maldonado it is likely he would have won the award over Gunnar Henderson. I am expecting huge things from Yainer in his first season as the Astros’ number one catcher.

How The Astros’ 2024 Season Will Unfold

Everything depends on how the pitching holds up. I have no doubts that the formidable offensive lineup of Altuve, Álvarez, Kyle Tucker, Alex Bregman, Chas McCormick and Díaz will find plenty of ways to get the job done. I also have no concerns whatsoever with the three-headed late-game bullpen monster of Abreu/Pressly/Hader.

However, the aforementioned brittle starting rotation and black hole of reliable middle relief does give me cause for sleepless nights. This is going to be the conundrum to solve that makes or breaks Joe Espada’s first season as an MLB manager. It is a genuine worry but the early noises from Espada have shown a sharp baseball mind and I have confidence he will find the answers needed.

As ever, it is all just about getting into October. If we do, I know we will be trouble for anyone. I choose to be optimistic and say everything is possible for the Astros this year with a fresh set of managerial eyes and a team hungry to make up for falling agonisingly short in 2023.

Game on…

Featured image of Yainer Díaz by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

George Martin is the Houston Astros correspondent for Bat Flips & Nerds. Follow him on Twitter/X at @AstrosFansUK and as part of @MLBUKCommunity.

Talking of MLB UK Community. Make sure you add the #MLBMeetupsUK to your diary. These are excellent events to bring UK baseball fans together. You don’t need to know anyone; simply rock up, say hello, and enjoy the game

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