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Covid_19 and the Houston Astros

Does This Hurt, Help, or Save Them?

Last Saturday, March 28th, was my 51st birthday and this whole week has been a sad one.  It is the first birthday in 40 some odd years that I do not have an Astro’s game.  For many years it was the last preseason game. Either against another MLB team or against a lineup of AAA/AA prospects.  To say that I miss it is an understatement.  I know I am not alone in this.  This is, however, the year where a prolonged delay in starting may be the absolute best thing that could happen.  How strange when considering that 75 days ago the Astros wanted nothing else but for Opening Day to be early.

Opening Day

The obvious thing that comes to mind, of course, is that Justin Verlander will now heal from his groin surgery.  Initially, it was hoped that the aggressive surgery would allow him to pitch a normal amount of games. Now like everyone else its when will he or anyone pitch again.  The second injury aspect is Lance McCullers who gets even more time to recover from his Tommy John surgery. The collective data shows that every additional day removed from TJ surgery is a positive thing, especially with his curveball. 

Ironically enough this delay also takes the spotlight off of the Astros and the anger displayed by fellow players. Now please do not think that I endorse the use of technology to steal signs.  The Astros earned every facet of their punishment and the punishment that will follow them for years to come.  They have lost and will never recover their full endorsement ability.  The players will have lost the ability to enjoy any potential HOF debate.  They will never be able to have a pure moment of joy reliving or celebrating the 2017 World Series.  These are all things that every player covets in their private moments. 

Once baseball resumes the world will want normalcy not continued mayhem. There will be those who will boo, hiss and be a pain. However many will no longer want to be so negative after this pandemic. They will rejoice that play has resumed and in that, we will all be teammates.

Income Stream

Covid_19 is severely reducing the income stream of every team.  We already know that MLB has frozen players signing bonuses in the draft for this year and next.  This reduction in income will also affect the trade deadline and free-agent signings for at least 2021.

The three players this will most directly affect are George Springer, Michael Brantley, and Carlos Correa.  Springer (31) and Brantley (34), have no need to prove themselves but will definitely see their payday reduced should they hit free agency after this year. Also, any long term extension or trade and sign have also been severely reduced.  The best bet for both will be a series of one-year contracts and the hope they don’t suffer a severe injury.  Correa given his injury history was looking to assert himself this year. Either to position himself as a trade target or hit a huge payday after the 2021 season.  The reduced season and volatile trade deadline absolutely must have him pressing.  He will be a key player to watch once the season finally begins. His all-out playing style is to blame for his injuries in the past.

The Draft

This delay gives the new GM James Click time to learn who the Astros are on a completely individual level. He can devise a game plan on how to improve the Astros given their current limitations via the draft. We all know the Astros lost their First and Second-round draft picks this year and next.  That is a huge blow to any team. For the Astros remember how Luhnow assembled the current team. Correa (R1, P1), Alex Bregman (R1, P2), McCullers (R1, P41) as well as Derek Fisher (R1, P37) who was in the 2017 roster.

Click comes from the Rays organization which had to maximize every facet of the draft process to help make up for the lack of payroll flexibility.  That was one of the keys to his selection. This delay allows him to learn in detail the Astros current scouting data as well as the game plan for this year’s draft prior to the penalty. 

Now that MLB and MLBPA have agreed on modifications Click can focus more on this year’s draft.  The agreement allows for the draft to take place between June 10th and June 20th.  It allows MLB the leeway to modify the draft’s length from anywhere between 5 and 40 rounds.  Should the draft be shortened the question becomes did this help or exacerbate the situation further for the Astros? 

The real problem the Astros face is trying to ensure that the picks they do have are absolutely the best available at their slot and then trying to find stars in the rough after the draft.  This last part is where the Covid_19 issue could help or hurt the Astros.  The Astros can take advantage of a short draft by signing more midrange talent. Instead of drafting 10 players in ten rounds, this allows them to sign 15 players instead.  However, MLB has hinted that they will cap the max signing bonus meaning a team’s reputation and personnel will factor more heavily into a player’s decision to sign with a particular team. 

International Signings

The same basic principals hold true for the International signing period.  The MLB and MLBPA agreed that the signing period can be delayed from July 2, to as late as January 15, 2021. 

There will be a lot of players who will refuse to sign with the Astros when there is no monetary advantage. However, those players with a chip on their shoulders, looking for something to prove, could find the prospect of signing with the Astros a golden opportunity to utilize the extra scrutiny to showoff or prove themselves. That is always a positive aspect. Unfortunately, MLB has now also hinted that they may limit the number of signings a team can make which would eliminate the possibility of a massive signing class to compensate for the lack of top talent opportunity. 

The Prospects

The other talent pool that Click has to take ownership of is the minor leagues. Yes, they are shut down as well but the biggest area of need for the Astros as the whole world knows is starting pitching. Guess what the Astros have an abundance of in their prospects – starting pitching.

Per MLB.com the Astros top 30 prospects include 18 pitchers with six of the top 13 anticipated to reach the majors this year. Some are quite obvious like Jose Urquidi who caught everyone’s attention in the World Series as well as the top prospect Forrest Whitely who is personally desperate much like Correa to have a great year. The others expected to step up are pitchers Bryan Abreu, Cristian Javier, Brandon Bielak, and Enoli Paredes.

This group projects to be a future star (Whitely) a solid third starter (Urquidy) two number fours (Javier and Bielak) a future closer (Abreu) and long reliever/fifth starter in Paredes. At least that was how Luhnow and his crew viewed them. Many outside the Astros don’t believe in the aforementioned prospects and this gives Crane a replacement in Click, who fully understands the data-driven methodology of Luhnow with the added benefit of different positive experiences. We will get a second opinion. This prolonged delay affords Click the time necessary to carefully and methodically analyze these pitchers who may well prove to be either the salvation or death knell of Luhnow’s dynasty.

Conclusion

In the end, Covid_19 transformed every facet of 2020. For the Astros, only time will tell if Click can utilize the pandemic’s fallout. However, it is legitimate to say that Covid_19 could also be remembered as the opportunity the Astros used to not just survive the organizational punishment handed down by MLB but to beat it.


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