First Pitch: Can the Houston Astros overcome ghosts of 2017?

Houston Astros, MLB Spring Training

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The Houston Astros face serious questions before Opening Day.

Much like the Black Sox, Pete Rose and steroid era before them, the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal is the modern era’s stain. Fair or not, the 2017 Astros will forever have an asterisk associated with what would otherwise be a classic youth-movement-coming-of-age story. Instead of directing the focus on Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and George Springer rounding into form at the right time — and an almost prophetic cover take by Sports Illustrated in 2014 —  hidden video replay, a since-debunked “buzzer system” and year-long suspensions to both A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow remain the prevailing narratives.

Four years removed from what can only be described as point-blank cheating, and a sole season since the rest of the baseball world found out about it, the Astros are tired of the same chatter by pundits who focus on the sins of those no longer employed by the organization.

Is moving on so simple? No. Can I give it my best effort? Sure.

Only a handful of Astros remain from that 2017 team. Such a number would’ve been higher had Houston made more of an effort to re-sign George Springer this offseason. Instead, Springer took his talents north of the border, signing with the Toronto Blue Jays. While the Astros may be thanking themselves for not engaging in long-term contract talks when Springer is, say, 35 years old, for now it stings. He was one of the faces of Houston’s franchise and a three-time All-Star. It would be of no surprise if he achieved a similar feat in Toronto in 2021.

Add in the Astros’ pitching issues thanks to injuries suffered by Justin Verlander, rising star Framber Valdez and No. 1 prospect Forrest Whitley … and suddenly Houston’s playoff hopes are in question. Jake Odorizzi can’t make up for all that production. While a shortened 60-game season is a small sample size, the Astros didn’t win the AL West last year — that honor went to Oakland.

Any doubts about the Astros’ 2021 season are real, but such is the case with most teams due to payroll shortages across the league.

How should Houston Astros fans feel about their 2021 chances?

Dusty Baker and the Astros have been preaching next man up all spring. So, who might those players be? And what of longer-term implications? For a more coordinated response to those questions and more, I turned to Climbing Tal’s Hill site expert Kenny Van Doren.

1. The Astros pitching staff is in a tough spot with injuries to Framber Valdez and Forrest Whitley. Who are some in-organization options that could step up to fill that void?

Kenny Van Doren: “To start, it is a devastating loss to lose both your third-best pitcher in the rotation and also the future in Forrest Whitley. While both are expected to move to the injured list, it will hurt the Astros even more if they start Whitley’s service clock. With that, there are three strong candidates to look at for depth this season … right-handers Bryan Abreu, Luis Garcia and Peter Solomon. Abreu and Garcia have had their short stints in the majors the last two years, but Solomon went down with Tommy John and the pandemic didn’t help with his progression. Abreu and Garcia will most likely fall to extra rotation hands this season, while possibly being starters next year. I feel at this moment that both Garcia and Solomon will be effective long-relievers, but the team also has experience in Josh James and Austin Pruitt returning from their respected injuries soon.”

2. For most opposing MLB fans, this will be the first chance to greet the Astros in person since the sign-stealing scandal. Let’s be honest — the reception won’t be kind. Do you expect that to impact the Astros on the road, either in a negative or positive light?

KVD: “It was evident the players weren’t 100 percent there in 2020, despite being one win away from the World Series. They were dealing with the threats and hate that, at a certain degree, should happen when you manipulate the game to win. Although, there are only six players on the active roster now that were on the 2017 team, while big names like George Springer are elsewhere and might not receive the same amount of backlash. At the end of the day, it is fuel for a team looking to make an American League pennant run.”

3. There is no replacing George Springer, so we can nix that idea. With that being said, can Houston fill in that production by committee? What’s the plan in the outfield?

KVD: “You’re right you can’t replace someone like Springer without somehow stealing Mike Trout, but the numbers will have to be picked up elsewhere. The outfield is set at the moment with Michael Brantley, Myles Straw and Kyle Tucker from left to right. Straw and Correa are the contenders for the leadoff spot, and either one would be sufficient. Neither one will be slamming leadoff home runs, but the lineup will be better with a healthy Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Yordan Alvarez in the mix. It will be hard to find a fourth outfielder with a possible addition of non-roster invite Steven Souza Jr. or relying on prospects Chas McCormick and Jose Siri until Pedro Leon is ready.”

4. Carlos Correa’s contract is a major talking point this spring, and for good reason. Is it in the Astros’ best interest to sign him long-term, and if so, what should that deal look like?

KVD: “It is in the Astros’ best interest to lock him up before the season starts due to the fact he won’t sign until next offseason. In such a … talented free agency class, they shouldn’t let him explore free agency and test the waters. Under owner Jim Crane, the largest free-agent contract has gone to Josh Reddick in 2017, so there is a worry there as they’ve been known to not spend big and lose players like Gerrit Cole and Springer. He might look for eight years and get in that range from six to eight, while maxing at a total of $200 million.”

Only six Houston Astros remain from that 2017 team, but is that a good thing? Sure, it allows a new crop of homegrown stars to step in and fill the void, but losing a veteran coaching staff and star players the caliber of Springer puts extra onus on those that remain, and those expected to contribute right away.

The Astros might not believe in ghosts, but the rest of baseball begs to differ.

First Pitch is a weekly MLB feature in coordination with the FanSided network.

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