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The Astros open the year having been semi-punished for perhaps the most elaborate cheating scheme in baseball history. The players’ system of stealing signs off a TV screen and then signaling the coming pitch by way of banging on a trash can not only got their GM, their manager and two other managers ousted, but also cost the franchise $5 million while wrecking its next two drafts.
Nothing, though, happened to the players. By offering them immunity in exchange for testimony, commissioner Rob Manfred let the sign-stealing system’s beneficiaries go free, leaving a bad taste in the mouths of fans and opponents, especially pitchers who were hit hard by the Astros.
This will be the story of Houston’s season. It’s not third baseman Alex Bregman’s hunt for an MVP, or ace Justin Verlander’s ongoing defiance of age, or centerfielder George Springer’s walk year or righty Lance McCullers Jr.’s comeback from Tommy John. It’s not a possible third pennant in four years. The only thing people will be thinking when watching the Astros is: Are they still cheating?
Owner Jim Crane did the best he could by hiring Dusty Baker, 70, to manage. Baker has had his finest years with veteran rosters, like the one Houston now has. He’s also beloved by the media. Most importantly, he wasn’t there in 2017 and can honestly say he has nothing to offer about what happened then.
The commissioner’s report noted that Houston had no sign-stealing scheme in place last year, so the team should be just as good at the plate—maybe better, with top prospect Kyle Tucker in the lineup and a full season of slugger Yordan Álvarez at DH. Though the pitching (No. 2 in ERA among AL teams in ’19) will take a step back with Gerrit Cole now in New York, it should remain strong enough to carry the Astros to the top of the AL West, with echoes of the banging trailing them the whole way. — Joe Sheehan
Projected Record: 93-69, 1st in AL West
Karma be damned, the Astros will still be good in 2020. But turnover in the dugout and front office, Gerrit Cole’s departure and improvement in Anaheim will eat into their win total.
Key Question: How Hard Will the Astros Fall?
The cheating scandal will hang over Houston all season, with every result, good and bad, contextualized through the lens of sign stealing. How much the Astros let the public reckoning of their past impact their season will determine their 2020 campaign. — Matt Martell
Moving Up: Kyle Tucker, OF
Though Tucker entered 2017, ’18 and ’19 as a top-20 overall prospect, he’s had only 131 MLB at bats. He should take over for Josh Reddick in right.
Moving Down: Josh Reddick, OF
After a ’17 breakout (one apparently unaided by the banging), the 33-year-old outfielder has tailed off (a combined OPS of .723 in ’18 and ’19).
Watchability Ranking: Please Watch
A team you love to hate can be every bit as watchable as a team you actually love. The Astros should be a testament to that in 2020—and even if you want to strip away the drama from a wild winter to focus on, you know, the baseball, this roster still packs just as much of a punch as the narrative around it. — Emma Baccellieri
Preview of the 2030 Preview
Alex Bregman, 3B: Entering his 15th season, Bregman remains baseball’s version of a pro-wrestling heel. Soon enough, the Cooperstown electorate will decide whether to give the 11-time All-Star a pass for the sign-stealing scandal. (Pete Rose’s unexpected 2025 induction is a bullish indicator, though it’s balanced by the ongoing exclusion of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.) But the fact that Bregman continued to mash in the years that followed put any questions about his talent to rest. — Craig Goldstein