added 04/04/2021 by Hector Llorens
As the first few games of the 2021 baseball season unfold, one thing is clear. The Astros are on a mission. This is not the same team that opened the uniquely challenging 2020 season. This is a team overflowing in talent now catapulting ahead due to a series of factors.
First, we have last year's finish. While 2020 left a bad taste in everyone's mouth due to a myriad of reasons, in baseball terms it could have been worse. We could have had no baseball at all. But the fact we did and the fact the Astros performed so well in October, earning a fourth straight trip to the American League Championship Series (ALCS), gives the 2021 squad both validation and momentum. They believe they have unfinished business.
Second, one cannot underestimate bringing back Michael Brantley. "Unfinished business" was precisely one of the reasons given by Brantley when he announced his return to the Astros. After two fantastic seasons, Brantley signed once again for a nearly identical contract in terms of value and years. This is one of the very best and, fortunately for Houston, undervalued players in the game. After a lengthy and mostly disappointing time in Cleveland (from a winning perspective), Brantley valued championship baseball and being part of the core in Houston over other considerations. The boost Brantley gives this team, especially after losing George Springer, is incalculable. Brantley's bat lengthens the lineup and makes everyone better.
Third, Springer is gone. The core members of the Astros surely miss him but are also simultaneously driven to ensure his run production is not missed. I previously predicted Jose Altuve would hit leadoff and do it exceptionally well. In these early games, Altuve is in MVP form and playing with his hair on fire – not just at the plate but on the base paths. In the second game of the season, he scored from third on a pop fly to second on a highlight reel play every opponent will henceforth emphasize in series preparation against the Astros.
Alex Bregman is also stepping up his production from the get-go, homering in the first two games of the season. While we hoped (nay, expected) Altuve and Bregman to return to form, the biggest factor in covering Springer's output is the return of Yordan Alvarez.
The legend of the Gran Bate (Spanish for “Big Bat”, my nickname for him) is being written before our eyes. The 2019 Rookie of the Year won't be hitting sixth for long in the Houston lineup. Gran Bate (pronounced bah-tay, in Spanish) could hit for a higher average, with more homers, and a higher OPS than Springer ever did in his best years. Alvarez' mature approach also makes him less susceptible to slumps. The Astros' run totals in the opening series versus last year's division champs demonstrate what this offense can do.
Fourth, GM James Click has made roster adjustments consistent with a team headed for the postseason. He brought Jason Castro back to Houston, which will prove invaluable over the long haul. He signed two veteran relievers in Pedro Baez and Ryne Stanek. He made a great deal to extend Yuli Gurriel, who early this season, is rewarding the Astros faith in his bat. That bat is legendary in Cuba and is also credited in helping the Astros sign Pedro Leon (now their #2 prospect). While many fans and writers love to criticize the lack of outfield depth, both Myles Straw and Chas McCormick are playing with confidence and are living proof of the Astros' player development capabilities. The need to bring another centerfielder given the current strengths in the Astros roster was never urgent. Remember that this is the franchise that went to the World Series with Willy Taveras in centerfield.
Fifth, this may be Carlos Correa's final year in Houston after turning down the Astros' best offer ($125 million over five years). Opinions vary on what Correa is worth but, for my part, a $25 million average annual value (AAV) was a fair offer considering Correa's injury history and lackluster regular season stats. He wants to be paid like a superstar but, historically, players have proven their worth on the field with consistent play and hitting certain metrics. Correa is quite frankly not there yet, postseason play aside. While he is not a top performer for the Astros early this season, he remains a clubhouse leader and on-field captain. I personally believe his potential departure provides extra motivation for the Astros to return to the ALCS.
Finally, this season we have fans in the stands. In these early games, the Astros have been booed relentlessly by fanatics who believe game outcomes were affected by the trash can banging scheme from 2017, even though the commissioner's report explicitly said there was no evidence of that. I believe the hate directed at the Astros fueled the team right from the opening series against Oakland. Those fans were extra upset at what happened last October, for sure, when the Astros nearly swept them out of the playoffs. But the booing in Oakland was more than postseason frustration, as MLB Network and ESPN will never let us forget. Team chemistry and solidarity is strongest when the world is against you, and that's the state of affairs with the Astros.
Whether these factors continue to propel the Astros in the weeks that follow remain to be seen. Yet anyone observing cannot deny they are off to a great start. Right now the Astros look like they're on a seven-month mission. They're playing like they have unfinished business.