2021 - Season Recap
by Bob Hulsey
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Have you ever watched those police chases from the traffic helicopter where the alleged crook runs over the spike strips and continues at high speed trying to outrun the law? After awhile, the tires have fallen off, the driver is running on the rims and the gas gauge is nearing empty. You know it won't be long before the vehicle breaks down but can it somehow make it all the way home before police arrive? That's the sort of experience one could get watching the 2021 Astros try to reach the finish line and claim an improbable second World's Championship. A team still branded by the media as villains from the 2017 sign-stealing scandal, Houston overcame several obstacles to finish just short of another trophy.
Like the year before, the Astros had to endure a winter where a major star was shopping themselves in free agency. In 2020, it was Gerrit Cole who opted for mega-bucks as a Yankee. This year, it was George Springer, a top-drafted and home-grown outfielder who was the big prize. The 2017 World Series MVP surprised many by signing with the rebuilding Toronto Blue Jays only to miss much of the season to injuries.
General Manager James Click did make a nice recovery by re-signing outfielder Michael Brantley to another two-year contract. He also brought back former Astro Jason Castro to team with Martin Maldonado behind the plate. There was still some room under the luxury cap limit but Click held firm about not spending for another free agent despite some glaring holes.
Until starting pitcher Framber Valdez, who shined in the 2020 COVID season, broke a finger on his pitching hand while reaching for a comebacker in March, that is. One big-name starter remained unsigned, former nemesis Jake Odorizzi who inked with Houston in a two-year, $17-million contract with options. It was a marriage of convenience and it solved an immediate problem while creating others later on.
Click tried to get a head-start on next winter's superstar free agent, shortstop Carlos Correa, but the two sides were nowhere close on the numbers and Correa's side stopped negotiations once the regular season began.
Staff ace Justin Verlander was likely to miss the campaign after Tommy John surgery but he teased a few times that he might return late in the year. Ultimately, he didn't. For the $66 million extension he signed after his brilliant 2019 effort, Verlander gave the Astros six innings total. It should be noted that his 2020 salary would have been pro-rated for a 60-game season so the outlay wasn't as severe as portrayed although it still made a $33 million dent in the luxury tax payroll calculations that had to be carried.
Houston fans weren't sure what to expect from this club. Were they the sub-.500 team that failed to impress during the 2020 regular season or were they the juggernaut that came within one game of returning to another World Series? How would the team respond to a full season under Dusty Baker, an old-school skipper that was prone to some puzzling decisions. Baker was known at previous stops to wear out his pitchers. Would a somewhat fragile rotation be able to hold up?
Having found starting pitching seemingly from nowhere in 2020, Click pressed his luck with arms that had not pitched a full big league season. Righthanders Jose Urquidy (8-3, 3.62 ERA), Luis Garcia (11-6, 3.48) and Cristian Javier (4-1, 3.55) were joined by aging veteran Zack Greinke (11-6, 4.16) and injury-prone Lance McCullers (13-5, 3.16), himself returning from Tommy John surgery, to make up the rotation. Odorizzi (6-7, 4.21) joined when he was deemed ready, bumping Javier to the bullpen despite a 3-1 record and a 3.14 ERA in nine starts. Lefthander Valdez (11-6, 3.14) returned from his sore finger at the end of May.
Despite having six starting pitchers and one more stuck in the pen, Baker seemed to have only five healthy starters most of the year. At one point in June, however, he tried a six-man rotation which led to an 11-game winning streak which ultimately won the division. The Astros were never out of the top spot after that streak.
The Astros began the season in Oakland with a four-game series against the club that beat them mercilessly during the 2020 campaign. To much surprise, Houston swept the series and made it look easy, winning by scores of 8-1, 9-5, 9-1 and 9-2. After starting the year at 6-1, they lost six straight, including being swept at home by lowly Detroit. They lost 2-of-3 in Seattle then were swept in Colorado. It was that type of spring. Houston was 29-24 in second place after the first two months. While they were on the road, they were booed, mocked and villified by opposing fans due to the 2017 scandal, especially Jose Altuve who didn't participate in the scheme and Correa who did and assumed a leadership position in responding to fans and critics.
One problem clearly holding the Astros back was their bullpen. After closer Ryan Pressly (5-3, 2.25, 26 saves), the relief corps was undependable. Click had signed Dodger reliever Pedro Baez (0-0, 2.08 in four appearances) but he missed most of the year between injuries and COVID. Ryne Stanek (3-5, 3.42, 2) became the eighth-inning set-up man despite never having had such responsibilities before. Baker tried Bryan Abreu (3-3, 5.75), Joe Smith (1-1, 7.48), Andre Scrubb (1-1, 5.03), Enoli Paredes (0-0, 6.23), Brandon Bielak (3-4, 4.50) and lefties Brooks Raley (2-3, 4.78, 2) and Blake Taylor (4-4, 3.16) while juggling between ineffectiveness and injuries.
Without Springer, the Astros started Myles Straw (.262 BA, 2 HR, 34 RBI) in center field but he started out poorly, as did his backup Chas McCormick (.257, 14, 50). As the season progressed, their play improved. Other than that, the lineup was the same as the year before with Altuve (.278, 31, 83) moving back to the leadoff spot. Yuli Gurriel (.319, 15, 81), Correa (.279, 26, 92) and Alex Bregman (.270, 12, 55) rounded out the infield. Brantley (.311, 8, 47) and Kyle Tucker (.294, 30, 92) filled the corner outfield spots. Yordan Alvarez (.277, 33, 104) was the designated hitter although he also played 41 games in left field. Maldonado (.172, 12, 36) worked 125 games behind the plate despite his poor offense while Castro (.235, 8, 21) appeared sporadically.
Correa, in his "walk year", displayed great leadership and came through with several clutch hits. Altuve, who was serenaded by Yankee fans with obscene chants, delivered two key homers against them in response. Gurriel won the American League batting crown while Brantley finished third. Alvarez led the team in homers and RBIs during his first full season with the club.
The Astros maintained a small lead on Oakland throughout the summer but seemed unable to push into a relaxing position. As the trade deadline approached, Click (as well as most observers) knew where to fix the team but doing so while keeping below the luxury tax cap was a challenge.
First, Click sent Smith and infielder Abraham Toro (.211, 6, 20) to Seattle for relievers Kendall Graveman (1-1, 3.13) and Rafael Montero (0-1, 0.00 in 4 games). Including Smith in the deal allowed Click to offset the cost. Next he dealt for Yimi Garcia (1-2, 5.48) from the Marlins for prospects and completed his shopping spree by sending Straw to Cleveland for reliever Phil Maton (4-0, 4.97). This was done while staying under the cap. Graveman and Garcia were pending free agents who signed elsewhere after the season.
With Straw sent packing, McCormick split time in center with call-ups Jake Meyers (.260, 6, 28) and Jose Siri (.304, 4, 9).
Despite these changes, the Astros were not building a lead. Bregman missed nearly two months with a hamstring injury while Brantley suffered back pain. Greinke was stricken by COVID in September and lacked his normal stamina upon return. Houston ambled through the final two months with a 31-26 record (.544), unable to clinch their division until the final week of the season. They had the look of a team that might break down during the postseason.
The ALDS... (Full Recap)
Two old managerial foes, 72-year-old Baker and 77-year-old Tony La Russa, clashed as the Chigao White Sox faced the Astros in the opening round. It set a record for the oldest pair of baseball managers to face off in a postseason series. Houston took the first two games at Minute Maid easily, 6-1 and 9-4, For Game 3 in Chicago, the White Sox routed Houston, 12-6, prompting Chicago reliever Ryan Tepera to chirp that maybe the Astros were still cheating. Correa retorted that Tepera "didn't know his facts" and deftly recited how the Astros had hit better on the road than they had at home.
The Astros finished off Chicago on the road in Game 4, 10-1, as if to say "take that", prompting La Russa to claim Baker's team "lacked class". What they did not lack was hot hitting throughout the lineup as they won their fifth straight LDS.
Somehow, the oft-injured McCullers was able to get through the season injury-free and was establishing himself as the possible ace of the staff. However, he strained his right forearm during Game 4 and was lost for the rest of the postseason.
The ALCS... (Full Recap)
The 92-70 Boston Red Sox had run through their arch-rival New York Yankees and the pesky Tampa Bay Rays to reach the ALCS. In many ways, they were like the Astros - scalding bats with questionable pitching. Boston got the early lead in Game 1 in Houston but Altuve tied the game with a two-run homer in the sixth. The next inning, Correa slammed the go-ahead homer then pointed to his wrist as if to say "It's MY time!". Houston went on to take the 5-4 opener.
But the BoSox belted grand slams in the first two innings of Game 2 and coasted to a 9-5 win. Back in Boston, another grand slam keyed a 12-3 drubbing in Game 3. Astros fans had visions of 2018 all over again.
The Astros righted the ship with wins of 9-2 and 9-1 at Fenway then finished off the series with a 5-0 shutout clincher as Luis Garcia came up big in the finale. He and the bullpen spun a two-hitter and began to celebrate the club's third World Series run in five years. Alvarez (.522, 1, 6, 1.408 OPS) was named the series MVP.
The World Series... (Full Recap)
Just as with 2019, the Astros faced an underwhelming team from the National League East. In this case, it was their old nemesis, the Atlanta Braves. Ex-Astro Charlie Morton, who dominated Houston while with Tampa Bay, got the Game 1 start against Valdez. In the third inning, with Atlanta already ahead, 5-0, Gurriel drilled a pitch which struck Morton on his right leg, breaking a bone. The Braves went on to win, 6-2, but Morton was finished for the year.
The Astros responded with a 7-2 victory in Game 2 but, in Atlanta, the Braves quieted Houston in 2-0 and 3-2 decisions that put them a game away from the championship. The bats that had been so thunderous throughout the playoffs ran out of steam at the worst time. Both teams were left with riddled pitching rotations by this point and it was more evident that the Astros weren't equipped to handle this as well as the Braves, whose bullpen was deep and sharp.
Urquidy got his second win of the Series and the bats boomed again in Game 5 for a 9-5 Halloween triumph that returned the Series to Houston. However, the glee was short-lived as the Braves handcuffed the Astros in a 7-0 whitewash to take Game 6 and the World's Championship. In their four losses, the Astros could produced just four runs and the only home runs were two solo shots by Altuve which put him into second place all-time for postseason homers. Houston pitchers allowed 11 long balls, three from Jorge Soler, a trade deadline acquisition that was voted the World Series MVP.
The 2021 Astros were not the juggernaut that their 2019 counterparts were. An American League pennant, for them, seemed like a grand achievement. Before long, the Astros would have to rebuild for the following season despite the expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement and the lockout that halted all personnel moves it caused.
1st Place, AL West
To be added at a later date.
Dec 3, 2020 - Released Cy Sneed (P)
Jan 7, 2021 - Signed Ryne Stanek (P) as a free agent
Jan 13, 2021 - Signed Pedro Baez (P) as a free agent
Jan 21, 2021 - Signed Jason Castro (C) as a free agent
Jan 22, 2021 - Designated Humberto Castellanos (P) for assignment. Claimed off waivers by ARI-N
Jan 23, 2021 - Traded Cionel Perez (P) to CIN-N for minor leaguer Luke Berryhill (C)
Mar 8, 2021 - Signed Jake Odorizzi (P) as a free agent
Jul 27, 2021 - Traded Joe Smith (P) and Abraham Toro (IF) to SEA-A for Kendall Graveman (P) and Rafael Montero (P)
Jul 28, 2021 - Traded Austin Pruitt (P) and minor leaguer Bryan De La Cruz (OF) to MIA-N for Yimi Garcia (P)
Jul 28, 2021 - Ryan Hartman (P) claimed off waivers by BAL-A
Jul 30, 2021 - Traded Myles Straw (OF) to CLE-A for Phil Maton (P) and minor leaguer Yainer Diaz (C)
Aug 27, 2021 - Signed Marwin Gonzalez (IF) to a minor league contract