The Astros are still really good, no matter how much fans hate them

The sign-stealing scandal may have destroyed the reputation of the Houston Astros, but it didn’t take away their ability to win the pennant yet again

No club is benefiting more from the delayed start of the MLB season than the Houston Astros. The sign-stealing scandal had made the Astros the most hated team across baseball. Their players had to at least suspect the firestorm they were about to walk into: fans loudly jeering them at every opportunity, bringing trash cans to games to mock them, and opposing pitchers intentionally throwing at them. The opening of the 2020 season wasn’t a good time to be an Astro.

With the season put off until late-June or early-July, the Astros can hope that some of the turmoil will disappear by the time games are actually played. It will also help that when the season does begin there likely won’t be fans in the stands, at least at first. That will allow the Astros to avoid all the distractions they would’ve otherwise have faced because on paper they remain a threat to win the American League pennant.

The Astros won a franchise-record 107 games in 2019 and came within eight outs of winning their second World Series in three years. Despite suffering some losses in the offseason, notably Gerrit Cole, they head into 2020 with a lineup that has a potential All-Star at every position except catcher.

Third baseman Alex Bregman is brash, cocky, and, most importantly for Houston, a perennial MVP candidate. Over the last two seasons, he leads all third baseman in Weighted Runs Created, WAR, and OPS, and he’s behind only Nolan Arenado and Anthony Rendon in RBI. He finished the 2019 season leading all batters in RBI, OPS (more than 100 points higher than second-place Nelson Cruz), wRC (35 points ahead of Cruz), and batting average over the final two months. He did it all despite injuries to Carlos Correa forcing him to move to shortstop for 28 games after Aug. 1.

Injuries were a recurring theme for the Astros last season, but it didn’t hurt their production. Second baseman Jose Altuve set a career-high with 31 home runs despite playing in only 124 games, his fewest since 2011. Center fielder George Springer hit 39 home runs and finished fourth in the AL in OPS behind Mike Trout, Cruz, and teammate Bregman even though he appeared in only 122 games. They, along with Correa, are back to full health.

The Astros will also get a full season (whatever that is) from reigning Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez in 2020. The powerful left-hander didn’t debut until June 9 but still led all rookies in batting average, slugging percentage (65 points higher than Fernando Tatis), and wOBA (nearly 40 points ahead of Tatis). Alvarez finished sixth in the league getting the barrel of his bat to the ball, just behind MVP Trout.

One monstrous blast off the Athletics’ Paul Blackburn on Sept. 9 into the upper-deck of Minute Maid Park was commemorated by the Astros with an orange seat where the ball finally landed. From the date of his debut, the Astros had three players finish in the top-six in OPS, including Bregman, Alvarez, and first baseman Yuli Gurriel.

That’s the lineup opposing teams have to deal with when the Astros are at-bat. On the mound, their pitching staff is deep enough to compensate for the loss of Cole, who took $324 million to sign with the New York Yankees.

Justin Verlander is coming off his second Cy Young Award-winning season, leading the league with 21 wins and a .803 WHIP, the second-best mark in the Live Ball era. He surrendered just 5.5 hits per nine innings, the fifth-lowest over the last 100 seasons, and at age 36 became the third-oldest pitcher after Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson to strike out 300 batters.

Behind Verlander in the rotation is Zack Greinke, who went 8-1 with a 3.02 ERA in 10 starts with the Astros last season following a trade-deadline deal. The Astros will also get back Lance McCullers Jr., who missed all of 2019 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. The last time McCullers pitched, in 2018, he used his curveball to reach 10 wins and strike out 10 batters per nine innings; no pitcher threw his curveball more often than McCullers did that season (46.7 percent). Jose Urquidy, still officially a rookie, made seven starts last season and gave up only one earned run in 10 innings during the postseason. In his last start of 2019, Urquidy pitched five shutout innings while giving up only two hits in Game 4 of the World Series against the Nationals.

The job of managing this group falls on Dusty Baker, who replaced the fired A.J. Hinch in January. Baker is the steady hand the Astros need in this time of crisis. He’s seen almost everything there is to see in baseball in his six-plus decades in the game. He was teammates with Hank Aaron and was on deck when Aaron hit his 715th home run in 1974. He managed the San Francisco Giants to an NL pennant while navigating Barry Bonds’ troubled relationship with teammates and the press. Baker has reached the postseason at least once with all four teams he’s managed in his career, and will likely do it again in Houston.

The Astros are the most-hated team in baseball, but they also might be the most talented. They’ve won at least 100 games three years in a row and went as far as the ALCS all three times. Fans can call them cheaters all they want, Baker’s club is built to play deep into the postseason.

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