Houston Astros' best-case and worst-case scenarios for 2024

Mar 7, 2024; Jupiter, Florida, USA; Houston Astros designated hitter Yordan Alvarez (44) is greeted
Mar 7, 2024; Jupiter, Florida, USA; Houston Astros designated hitter Yordan Alvarez (44) is greeted / Rhona Wise-USA TODAY Sports

The surest bet in modern baseball is that the Houston Astros will play for the American League pennant. They’ve made it to the ALCS annually since 2017, a string that encompasses two World Series titles and which may or may not have been enhanced by garbage can lids.

The world, therefore, will be forgiven for assuming that the Astros will make it eight straight ALCS trips this summer. There are, however, potential land mines ahead.

Astros' Best-Case Scenario for 2024 Season

The Astros have that most sought-after of commodities: young, talented and proven experience. Jose Altuve, Yordan Álvarez, Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker and Jeremy Peña are all in their primes, and all are stellar either offensively or defensively, usually both.

Álvarez is the guy to watch. At age 26, he batted .293 with a .990 OPS last season and might have pushed 50 home runs and 130 RBI had he not missed 50 games.

Tucker, who will be 27, drove in 112 runs, and the roster finished fifth in the majors in runs per game.

The rotation is led by Cristian Javier and Framber Valdez, both still in their 20s and both potential aces. Javier’s the guy who pitched two-thirds of the World Series no hitter against the Phillies in 2022.  He produced a career-high 162 innings last season, and there’s no reason this year to expect anything less than 32 starts and 180 innings.

Valdez is simply the staff ace, and that is said with apologies to Justin Verlander. In 2023, he was only 12-11, but he could blame horsebleep run support for that; in his 11 losses he allowed an average of just 3.5 earned runs. His 3.45 ERA in 198 innings tells the true story.

For the Astros to really make magic in 2024, they need Jose Urquidy to deliver on his years-long promise. Still just 29, Urquidy was a rookie sensation in 2019, but he’s been an oft-injured afterthought since then. He’s pegged as the team’s No. 4 starter this season, and if he can at least pitch like it, the Astros will be as tough to beat as usual.

Astros' Worst-Case Scenario for 2024

Houston’s nightmare scenario involves the team’s most recognizable pitcher, Justin Verlander. What can you realistically expect from a 41-year-old pitcher -- even a future Hall of Famer -- who’s starting the season on the IL thanks to a shoulder problem?

Granted, Verlander had a solid 2023: a 3.22 ERA in 27 starts with the Mets and Astros. But 41 is a daunting age for a guy dealing with shoulder problems. And the longer Verlander sits out, the more new Astros manager Joe Espada has to rely on Urquidy, Lance McCullers, Hunter Brown, Luis Garcia and J.P. France to back up Valdez and Javier.

Urquidy’s question marks have already been noted. That makes McCullers the supplementary concern. Right now, he’s listed as the No. 5 starter behind Verlander, Valdez, Javier and Urquidy. But that’s falsely optimistic. He’s injury-prone, having missed large sections of 2022 and all of 2023 recovering from assorted arm problems. He hasn’t thrown a pitch in anger yet this spring and nobody projects him throwing in a game situation prior to midseason, which is a polite way of saying nobody really knows when, if ever, he’ll be back.

As with Verlander, scratch McCullers and you are leaning heavily on three from among Brown, Garcia, Urquidy and France to back up Valdez and Javier. That quartet can only be described as problematic.

Astros' Most Realistic Scenario

For the moment, it’s reasonable to assume the best with Verlander. That would be a late-April return, probably 20 starts and a solid 3.50 ERA. That would give Espada a chance to try to finesse the four and five rotation spots among Brown, Urquidy, Garcia and France while hoping for McCullers’ return.

That rotation uncertainty is the big stumbling block between the Astros and an eighth straight ALCS trip. Houston was top 10 in fewest runs allowed per game last season, but that was almost entirely due to Valdez and Javier. With all other pitchers on the mound, the Astros fell to 23rd in that category.

But the Astros are also facing external challenges. The Rangers took them out on their way to the World Series title last season, and the Seattle Mariners can’t be taken for granted.

Houston won 90 games last season, and given close to a full season from Verlander, it’s entirely plausible to see another one. But if injuries force this team to rely on its fourth through sixth rotation options for 100 starts, Astros fans may find themselves in the uncomfortable position of wondering where the trash can lids are stored.

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