There are many who thought the Astros got off light before even hitting spring training last year. While the response was always “immunity,” only a couple managers and a GM suffered with the loss of their jobs.
It got even lighter for Houston. The spring training that would have seen opponents with not much else to do other than drilling the Astros hitters in the ribs for entertainment value was cut short. The season was played without fans who would have been all over them. Being only 60 games added an urgency where teams couldn’t really waste a bunch of time getting even (though that didn’t stop performative shithead Joe Kelly from getting his attention). It could have been so much worse.
Even with the quieter stage, something seemed to weigh on the Astros. Justin Verlander got hurt. The offense went south. Jose Altuve had a conveyor belt turning right at first. Carlos Correa’s power went poof. And Yordan Alvarez only played two games. Houston finished middle of the pack in runs, a precipitous fall from where they’d been the previous seasons.
Houston may never face the noise. The season will start with limited fans, and combined with the year’s time, things will definitely not be boiling. The Astors may not see a full house all season, and may never have to hear 40,000 taunts for nine innings. Second, whatever teams still have beef that didn’t see the Astros last year would have had to keep the fires burning for more than a year. It’s not likely.
Was the expectation of wrath and derision what drove the Astros down last year? Was it the tighter scrutiny and the lack of whatever it was they had been doing? That’s what everyone wants it to be, just to know that all the times we were told cheating didn’t pay as kids could even be kind of true (they still have a World Series banner, after all).
They won’t have any of that this year. They get Alvarez returning. They get an experienced Kyle Tucker over a full season. If they get Correa and Altuve anywhere near what they were, then it should be another division crown as the rest of the AL West hasn’t done much to get away from them.
But if that’s what the Astros were with no noise, then maybe that’s what they are. The rotation is certainly a question beyond Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers. They’ll have to patch together a bullpen full of the proletariat over 162 instead of just 60 as they did last year. Maybe the expectation of retribution was a weight last year that will be lessened this year. Maybe they’ve hit the back end of their curve. If it’s the former, fans and opponents will feel even more aggrieved that no one on the field paid for their crimes in the slightest.
It certainly is an open highway for them. Last year’s champion Athletics lost their closer in Liam Hendriks to free agency, as well as Marcus Semien. There wasn’t a rush to replace either. Elvis Andrus was imported from Texas, but he was a negative WAR player last year, hasn’t hit in three seasons, and at 32 might be charring on the grill. They’ll count on full seasons from Frankie Montas and Jesus Lazardo, which they’ve never really gotten. And maybe they can keep A.J. Puk upright for six minutes to either be a weapon out of the pen or join the rotation. But they’re 0-for-2 doing that in his career so far. It’s also a pen that will be counting on Trevor Rosenthal and Sergio Romo (combined age: Keith Richards), which is dicey.
It would be funny if the Mariners went on a “Revenge Against Rachel Phelps” Tour after their president aired them out at the rotary club, but there isn’t enough here to do so. They’ll be stripping for parts again come July. The Angels will provide hope in April when Shohei Ohtani makes four starts, and then waste another year of Mike Trout’s career when Ohtani misses his next 12. They’ll hit, and Raisel Iglesias will anchor the pen better than it’s been, and can maybe, maybe stay in touching distance long enough to acquire another starter before the deadline. Apparently the Rangers play here as well.