The Houston Astros are at the pinnacle of the baseball world, at least for now. Over the last seven years, they have made just that many ALCS appearances, along with four trips to the Fall Classic. Twice they have hoisted the World Series trophy.
In 2023, the Astros won the AL West for the sixth time in seven seasons, but barely. They produced 90 wins, their lowest season total since 2016, having to clinch the division on the last day of the regular season with assistance from a Rangers loss.
The roster is aging, the pitching staff is not what it once was, and all three of Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker are inching closer to free agency by the day. (Altuve and Bregman are both free agents after 2024, while Tucker is a free agent after 2025.)
Do this year’s ZiPS projections, produced by Dan Szymborski of FanGraphs, hint at the beginning of a decline for the Astros dynasty? Let’s take a look.
Key Position Player Takeaways
- Yordan Alvarez will continue to be the best pure hitter on the planet. ZiPS projects that he will swat 36 bombs with 109 RBI, a .985 OPS and a 170 OPS+. He is projected to do that. And ZiPS often errs on the side of caution. The system is puffing its chest out with Alvarez, as it should.
- ZiPS believes that Altuve’s decline is beginning. He is projected to put up a 126 OPS+ and .819 OPS, each of which would be his lowest in any full season since 2015. Both numbers would be a steep decline from 2023 when Altuve posted a .915 OPS and a 151 OPS+. However, he is entering his age 34 season. At some point, Father Time has to catch up with him.
- Chas McCormick is a threat at the plate. The Astros need fresh blood in their lineup, and McCormick, while not new per se (this will be his fourth big league season), is projected to make an impact for Houston. After hitting 22 long balls with a 130 OPS+ in 2023, ZiPS projects he will regress slightly but still string together 18 bombs with a 114 OPS+. Combine that with his defense, and ZiPS believes he will have close to a three-win season in 2024.
- Jeremy Peña is not a great bat. Sure, he got off to a red-hot start in 2022 while later cementing himself as a postseason hero. Still, the shortstop holds a career 98 OPS+ over his first two seasons. ZiPS expects more of the same in 2024, projecting a .249/.303/.386 slash line and a 91 OPS+, which would be his lowest mark to date.
- ZiPS is not yet sipping the tea on Yainer Diaz. The catcher burst onto the scene last year with 23 home runs in 104 games, complemented by an .846 OPS and a 128 OPS+. But ZiPS believes his slugging percentage will drop more than 80 points in 2024, signaling that the system thinks his rookie year was a bit of a fluke.
Key Starting Pitcher Takeaways
- Framber Valdez is the ace of the staff. Not that this was in question, but after back-to-back four-fWAR seasons, Valdez is expected to lead the rotation by a wide margin in fWAR, ERA, and innings pitched.
- Justin Verlander continues to defy age. At age 41, ZiPS believes Verlander will still put up a 3.85 ERA along with the second-most innings pitched on the staff. The system also projects he will have the second-lowest walk rate (7.5%) among Astros starters, trailing only José Urquidy. The future first-ballot Hall of Famer is an ageless wonder.
- Was 2022 an outlier for Christian Javier? ZiPS believes Javier is much closer to the pitcher he was in 2023 (4.56 ERA, 1.9 fWAR) than in 2022 (2.54 ERA, 3.3 fWAR). He is projected to put up a 4.06 ERA, 4.48 FIP, and 100 ERA+.
- Hunter Brown will improve in 2024 but won’t break out. After posting a 5.09 ERA in 2023, Brown is projected to take a step forward with a 4.06 ERA and 139 strikeouts in 135.1 innings. Those numbers represent a real improvement, but that said, they are not the All-Star numbers he could one day produce.
Key Relief Pitcher Takeaways
- Bryan Abreu continues to be one of the game’s greats. After back-to-back seasons with a sub-two ERA, ZiPS believes Abreu will post a 3.24 ERA in 2024. That may sound high, but remember, ZiPS tends to be cautious. The system also projects a 33.5% strikeout rate for Abreu, the second-highest mark among any Astros pitcher.
- Ryan Pressly isn’t slowing down. Over ten big league seasons, Pressly has proven to be one of the game’s better bullpen arms. His projected 3.35 ERA, 3.42 FIP and 121 ERA+ suggests that should continue in 2024, even as he enters his age-35 season.
- Josh Hader gives the Astros bullpen a true three-headed monster. Since 2018, Hader has been one of the best relievers in the sport (if not the single best). Fresh off signing his shiny five-year, $95 million contract, Hader is expected to continue to rain on offensive parades late in games with a projected 3.09 ERA and well over 12 K/9.
- Houston has really turned over the bullpen, adding Hader but losing Ryne Stanek, Phil Maton, and Hector Neris. Abreu, Pressly, and Hader are great, but there are a lot of unproven arms behind them. The Astros could always bring back Stanek and/or Maton, but as of now, their reliever depth feels a bit thinner than it’s been in previous seasons.
- The health of the rotation will be key for this team. Age is always something to watch with Verlander (though to his credit, he has proven to be a workhorse since his return from Tommy John surgery). More to the point, the status of Lance McCullers and Luis Garcia is something to watch. If those two can get back on the field (Garcia is projected to return around the All-Star break), the rotation should take an additional step forward, beyond the current projections.
- The Astros aren’t going anywhere in 2024. After that, it could be a different story, with Bregman and Altuve hitting free agency. There is also the possibility of Verlander retiring, especially if the aforementioned two find new homes. For now, however, the Astros will be right in the thick of the AL pennant race once again.