The Houston Astros have been the gold standard for baseball teams rebuilding through the draft and a strong prospect development system in the minor leagues, and adding the correct pieces around their core talent as they progress. Aside from inspiring a plethora of other franchises to follow suit in the ensuing years, the Astros came away with tangible results, a la the 2017 World Series crown.
The Astros, top to bottom, are stacked with wily veterans and All-Stars alike who don’t necessarily scream break through talent. With little room on the big league squad for a young talent to see a sizable role, we have to look for a next-level performance from one of the already established Major Leaguers in 2019. Some favorites I have for this nod are Lance McCullers Jr., Carlos Correa, Tyler White, and Tony Kemp. McCullers has gone from wunderkind of the Astros pitching staff to questionable fifth starter in no time flat, at still just 25 though he’s more than capable of finding a consistent stride with Justin Verlander & Gerrit Cole carrying the load at the top of the rotation this season. Correa is still a talent the baseball world is very big on, injuries have hampered his growth early but any full-season will likely be a breakout campaign for this burgeoning superstar. With the ‘Stros likely done adding bats after the Michael Brantley signing, White will get the nod as their primary DH for a full season, and with his powerful swing he has 30+ home run potential. Front office and fans alike have begun to sower on the inconsistencies of Josh Reddick in the outfield and with Marwin Gonzalez unlikely to return to the team this offseason it appears that Kemp will be getting the first crack at replacing him during his frequent struggles.
The real hidden gem on this Astros squad however is a man by the name of Josh James. Super generic…I know…but his potential to breakout this season is anything but. James debuted at the tail end of 2018 with a few strong outings, splitting six appearances evenly between starts and trips in from the bullpen. A relatively underwhelming prospect, James impressed many with his dominance of the strike zone in his MLB stint, striking out nearly 1 out of every 3 batters he faced. Obviously that’s a lot to ask of a 26 year old in his first full season, but the opportunities will be there for him early and often in Houston.
With the departures of both Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton in free agency, the Houston Astros rotation has taken a painful turn for the worse as we inch ever closer to spring training. Their farm system, while still strong, lacks MLB-ready arms who could positively impact their immediate title hopes. Barring an unlikely reunion with the 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner, the prospects of finding an impact arm in the remaining free agency pool looks slim. So unless the Astros can net a highly regarded starter via trade in the coming weeks, it appears that James will crack the starting rotation to open the year. Even if Houston makes a move for another starter, James’ impressive 2018 stats should give him a nod in one of the remaining two slots in a competition with the inconsistent McCullers and Collin McHugh who put up a great stat line in 2018 but is favored in the bullpen.
Projections around the league vary greatly for James as many remain unsure of his future should the Astros remain in the hunt for more established names. That being said though, his striking numbers (albeit in a limited sample size) bode well for him at least getting the opportunity to be great in 2019.